Maryland Eastern Shore Office Update

From the Desk of Alan Girard

Latest Threat to Maryland's All-Important Oysters

Fall 2016

Oysters. Their value to Maryland is big.

Big in the smiles around dining room tables in fall.

Big, too, in the diversity of wildlife that living oyster reefs sustain in the Bay. These reefs help keep the Chesapeake and its rivers clean and healthy (see this amazing time-lapse video here of oysters hard at work, filtering the Bay's water). They also support livelihoods of those in the seafood industry, tourism trades, and many other sectors of the state's economy.

Nearly every single Marylander benefits from this icon of the Bay in some way.

But a state commission that will recommend Maryland's oyster management policies for the future seems to think oysters are good for one thing only: harvesting for the benefit of the seafood industry.

That has a lot of people worried that Maryland is about to backtrack on oyster restoration and allow harvesting on "sanctuary" oyster reefs that until now have been off-limits.

The Oyster Advisory Commission (OAC) was encouraged by state officials to recommend relaxing the state's oyster plan. We're not sure why. The existing plan is working. About 76 percent of the state's oyster grounds can still be harvested by watermen. About 24 percent are closed to harvest, and on those sanctuaries, oysters are growing and slowly rebuilding the natural three-dimensional reefs that used to be common in the Chesapeake. In addition to filtering water and providing habitat, these reefs are expected to boost reproduction and help oysters recover throughout the Bay.

Maryland's existing oyster strategy was a response to a six-year 2009 study by Maryland, Virginia, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who found that native oyster restoration is an important part of saving the Chesapeake Bay, and should be scaled up. Both Maryland and Virginia committed to restore oyster habitat and populations in ten tributaries by 2025. In Maryland, that work has progressed mostly on schedule. Until now.

Perhaps the commission was created as a vehicle for the seafood industry. Twice the number of watermen are harvesting now compared to a few years ago so they are exhausting available oyster supplies much faster and clamoring for more. Sanctuaries make an easy target. Mark Belton, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, appointed mostly watermen and industry affiliates to the OAC.

It's not surprising, then, that the OAC is considering opening up sanctuaries to harvest. The commission also is considering substantially reduced spending on large oyster restoration projects.

As recommendations from the OAC are finalized in the coming months, Marylanders are faced with a choice: Allow these recommendations to move forward based on the views of the commission's unbalanced membership, or ensure that the group's actions reflect the care and concern of all Marylanders.

Citizens can share their thoughts with OAC and state officials in writing, by phone, or during public comments at commissioner meetings. The commission meets the second Monday of each month, 6 p.m. at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Tawes State Office Building, Annapolis, Maryland. Anyone is welcome to attend and make remarks during the public comment segment of each meeting.

—Alan Girard
Eastern Shore of Maryland Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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